Of galvanizing and the village smithy

Guest perspective/Capt. Michael L. Martel

Anyone restoring, or even replicating a traditional Maine-built craft, pleasure or working sail, knows that these vessels, when originally built, were not outfitted with Herreshoff bronze, generally. Instead, their fittings – from spar hardware to windlasses to chainplates – were forged steel or cast steel that was hot-dip galvanized.

Galvanizing is an old finishing process that’s extremely durable, perfect for high-strength hardware such as gammon irons, cranse irons and the like, which cannot afford to fail under demanding conditions. And painted galvanized hardware will last virtually forever.

So now, you say, you have a traditional forged mast band for your gaff-schooner, with rings on either side for attachment of shrouds or whatnot. It has been cut or damaged, galvanization is gone from some of it, and it is rusting. You want to restore it, so what do you do?

Repairs to the metal are best done by a blacksmith. Such a craftsman forged the material in the first place. The reason is that the same processes used to form the part should be used in its repair. Finding a smithy is easy. An online search brings up The Artist-Blacksmith’s Association of North America (ABANA) at www.abana.org, which bills itself as “as a center of information about blacksmithing for the general public, architects, interior designers, and other interested parties.” In Attleboro, Mass., George Martell of Martell’s Metal Works, (now retired and probably a relative), did wonders in terms of fabricating and repairing parts for my gaff yawl Privateer over the years.

Privateer’s forged parts were made by a blacksmith in Waldoboro, Maine, in 1930. A skilled metalworker can achieve satisfactory results – through welding, brazing or other processes – but the best way is always consistency.

When I first began restoring my Alden-designed yawl, I gathered up my broken mast rings, chainplates and such, and brought them to George. One item was the original windlass, which had been heavily painted with aging epoxy paint. “No problem,” George replied, “I’ll just throw it on the forge.”

That took all the paint off. But the windlass was a complicated assembly, with an attached gear for an early chain drive. When I went to the galvanizer, in Everett, Mass., the technician told me the assembly, which I could not take apart, would trap too much metal and couldn’t be effectively galvanized. “Just paint it,” he advised. So I did. The other parts, new and repaired, were hot-dip galvanized and installed.

Fast-forward more than a dozen years. I had enjoyed my boat, sold it, and then got it back again after years of neglect. By now, the old windlass was in bad shape. When I first owned Privateer, I purchased a used windlass, a close copy of mine, in great condition, in case I needed a replacement, and it sat in my basement for years. Now, refitting Privateer, I wanted to swap them, but I found that the spare had too short a “capstan shaft.”

The windlass is horizontally mounted on the deck, with two drums, one on either side of the kingposts. The original shaft was in good shape, but the bell-shaped drums were on solid, with five-fifteenths-inch bronze pins holding them in place on the shaft ends. It was time to pay George and his forge a visit. On a cold winter day, his shop was comfortable, thanks to the roaring hot anthracite fire burning openly in his forge.

George removed the deteriorated parts from the old (longer) shaft and cleaned it up. Then he removed the new parts from the short-shaft spare, and put them loosely on the old shaft. Perfect. I didn’t want him to assemble the windlass, because I wanted to have the parts hot-dip galvanized before assembly. The tough part was removing the old cast-steel drive-gear assembly, but a hot forge fire and some hefty hammer blows by George did the trick.

At home, I cleaned them up with wire brushes; all paint, oils, rust, and scale had to go. Then I brought them to V&S Taunton Hot Dip Galvanizing (www.hotdipgalvanizing.com), in nearby Taunton, Mass. The foreman pointed out residue still inside the drums: Some pre-treatment was needed – cleaning or acid or pickling or something. Unless the metal parts are completely free of rust and residue, the zinc won’t wet to the metal and adhere. When I got the newly galvanized parts back, they looked like cast silver.

Of course, there was more to do. This manual windlass is operated by putting a wooden handspike into a disk-shaped ratchet lever with a pawl. The windlass is symmetrical, with identical “warping-head” drums and ratchets mounted on the shaft, on either side of the king post. The drums are notched around their inward edge.

Pawls on the kingposts prevent the drums from reversing after each pull. Operating by gravity, these pawls have to be able to move loosely and freely. The galvanizers had hung the parts upside down when they dipped them into the big tank of molten zinc. As a result, the pawls on the ratchets were embedded in pooled solid zinc.

It took an entire afternoon to drill, cold chisel and chip the zinc out of the cavity so the pawls were free and could operate loosely. All that hammering and drilling was bound to scrape away galvanizing in a few places, especially around the ratchet pawls. I didn’t want any rust to start in there, so I decided to paint the parts to protect the galvanizing from salt corrosion and oxidation.

Galvanizing, however, adds a layer of coating thickness. Designers of parts (such as nuts and bolts) intended for hot-dip (not electrolytic-bath) galvanizing make an allowance for this, which is why, for example, a galvanized nut will feel slightly loose if turned onto a non-galvanized carriage bolt.  Any added paint will increase that part’s dimension, and could cause the working parts of the windlass to bind, so I didn’t want to use a gloppy, two-part epoxy primer, no matter how well it might protect the galvanization. I wanted something fairly thin, even if it was not terribly durable, because, when combined with the layer of galvanization, the part would have enough protection.

I just happened to have some two-part Awlgrip in the boat shed. It’s a light gray, which was fine because that silver-ingot look of the freshly-galvanized windlass parts would quickly turn gray in salt air and water. If the Awlgrip began to chip or wear off, its loss wouldn’t be noticeable.

Paint purists will cringe when I say that I did not use a primer. I simply cleaned the parts with a solvent wash – 91 percent isopropyl (IPA), available at the local drugstore. Then I mixed my Awlgrip with the catalyst and brushing thinner and applied it to the parts, suspended from S-hooks made from clothes hangers. I painted the parts separately and unassembled, of course, getting the paint into nooks and crannies, especially where the galvanization didn’t take.

Once it was dry, in a couple of days or so, and had formed a hard coating, I assembled my windlass and mounted it on the foredeck, confident that it would provide years of good service with minimal attention.

Capt. Mike Martel lives in Bristol, R.I., where he writes about marine subjects and is restoring, in his free time, his 1930 Alden-designed gaff yawl Privateer. An ex-Coastie and a licensed Master, he has partnered with Capt. Bill Madison to form Delivery Passagemakers, a yacht-delivery service.